Reading too much lately, too much time, not enough work, not enough money in the bank to travel or start a project. That’s Christmas for you. Picked up and read Waiting on a Train, by James McCommons. Short, well-written first-hand account of the author travelling the entire length, near as I can figure it, of the Amtrak passenger rail system. Did so over a two year spell, and during so went off and interviewed most of the important players, both political and rail industry, on the passenger rail issue here in the US.
The author is a fan of rail travel and a proponent of the United States making more efforts to shift more passenger traffic, and freight traffic, to rail from cars and airplanes. The environmental benefits of this are obvious and well known, but the author also makes an argument about the positive societal changes this would entail–more human scale cities and more leisurely and sociable travel for us. Speaking from firsthand experience I must agree with the latter–railroad bar and dining cars are one of humanity’s finer creations.
Through his interviews and his reporting, he tells the history of post WWII passenger rail decline, near extinction, and rescue by the US government by what we aren’t supposed to call nationalization when Amtrak was formed. McCommons does a good job of getting past the political sloganeering that has surrounded Amtrak ever since its creation and explains why Amtrak is what and the way it is. McCommons does a most important favor to us all by telling the stories of several states’ DOT’s initiative in promoting passenger rail initiatives. California leads the way but there are surprises where you wouldn’t expect, such as Maine. Unfortunately, my native Texas is at the very ass end of these efforts, partly from the innate cheapskate shortsightedness of its Republican political operators and partly from the evil hand of Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, whose bread and butter short hop intrastate operations would be killed by a Texas passenger rail system. As realistically speaking they should be. From my reading of the numbers, rail makes more sense for short (US scale short–up to 300 to 400 miles) trips than any other means of transportation, and we should face up to that fact and start moving in that direction nationwide.
But those numbers aren’t to be found in this book which has three serious weaknesses in it, ones that are perhaps unavoidable in US publishing today. The first is its purely literary approach to a social issue that to be fairly discussed requires a good deal of numbers and statistics and charts. All that is considered death for general readers, and most books, and all newspapers, leave them out. The second weakness is the lack of overall big picture view of the passenger transportation issue, with comparisons of the competing modes’ costs, benefits, and drawbacks. That might well have led to a much different and much too large book than this one; this flaw is perfectly excusable. Third weakness is the lack of a real overview of rail passenger travel, and more, the history of the railroad industry, past and present.
F or years I’ve searched for a good book explaining the railroad industry and how it works and haven’t yet found it. Nor is there a good history of railroads. The overwhelming majority of what is written about railroads is aimed at what the working rail industry personnel call foamers (from foaming at the mouth), the persons (male, almost exclusively) who are train and train gear infatuated. We all know them, the adults with train sets in their basements. Books written for them are deficient in critical perspective and they all ignore completely the business side of railroading, which side is of course the key critical essential side of railroading. None of the foamer books warrant any more attention than a quick look at the pictures, and seeing as most railroad books are foamer books, that’s the sad state of things now, and for one hell of a long time running, too, of writings on the railroad industry. All the rest of us are left in the dark about learning anything useful about the railroad industry, too, from our vantage on the outside. Someone in the rail industry ought to correct this problem, for no other reason than that I’d like to see an account explaining the results of my tax dollars going to them.
Second book of note I just read is Hitler’s First War, by Thomas Weber. Weber is this youngish academic in the UK who has quite pulled a rabbit out of the hat with this book in giving us a first-rate new significant discovery about Adolf Hitler and World War II. Seeing as Hitler is the lead character in WW II, the most written-about event in world history ever, this is no small feat.
Weber went off to primary sources to investigate and cross-check the generally accepted accounts of Hitler’s World War I experiences as a private in the Bavarian List Regiment. Hitler wrote extensively in Mein Kampf about his experiences in the war, how they shaped him personally, how they created his political consciousness on all the issues Germany faced, how the war made him the person he was. Until now, historians have largely accepted Hitler’s narrative of events about the war, without doing any crosschecking into primary source materials, such as Hitler’s military records, his letters sent to friends during the war, or recollections of his fellow soldiers and his NCO and officer commanders. Weber did, and discovered that Hitler had largely spun a series of tall tales about his heroism, his exposure to danger, his decorations, his injuries, his political coming to awareness during the war, and his immediate post-war military service in a Freikorps fighting the Bolsheviks.
Seeing as most people’s revulsion towards Hitler will keep them from ever reading a book about him, I’ll cut to the chase and dish out the dirt. Weber’s research reveals that Hitler saw only a few days of combat early in 1914, and spent the rest of the war as a regimental dispatch runner. It is entirely possible that Hitler never fired a shot in anger ever during his military career; certainly he never did, or could have, once he became a dispatch runner. This posting kept him a mostly safe distance removed from the front lines, put him sleeping under a roof every night, got him better food than the front line troopers, and also gave him access to officers to asskiss into issuing him medals. Hitler showed no great political understanding of any issue during his years as a soldier, although he was a capable gasbag on many topics and generally tired his fellow soldiers greatly when he went on his soapbox. Hitler, a private (I believe the US Army equivalent is PFC), never got a promotion in four years of war in part because his commanding officers never saw any leadership potential whatsoever in him.
It really was an accomplishment to never get a single promotion in four years in an infantry unit in wartime, and there is a fair or better possibility from documentary evidence that Hitler understood that a promotion would put him at risk of returning to the front lines and Hitler wasn’t ever keen on that happening and therefore played his cards to not get promoted. Hitler was a loner and most of his fellow soldiers didn’t think much of him, and in fact the front-line soldiers thought him just another rear-echelon swine living high on the hog out of the firing line. So much for the comradeship of the trenches.
Hitler’s two Iron Crosses, both Second and First Class, were mostly unwarranted if not entirely unearned. Hitler’s story of being blinded by a British gas attack in 1918 is false; while Hitler did sniff a bit of mustard gas his (real enough) blindness was in fact a psychosomatic condition caused by combat stress, and quite likely had the war gone on much longer Hitler would have been discharged from the army for that condition. Instead of fighting the Bolsheviks in Munich in the immediate post war turmoil, when the Bavarian red left seized power in Munich in late 1918, Hitler in fact joined their forces and assumed a NCO leadership position in them.
Besides all of the above dirt, Weber also has written a good small account of Wilhelmine Germany and its final war. There’s been a severe shortage of books on that topic, as most all of WW I’s historical coverage available in English focuses on the UK’s war efforts and effects, with a secondary focus on the French and American. There’s almost nothing on the Russian WWI, and nothing I’m aware of of the Austro-Hungarian war, and until last year, not a single worthwhile book on the Italian war.* There isn’t that much out there on the German side of the war and that is something that historians should address, like Weber has.
Hitler rewrote his life history in Mein Kampf for his own reasons of self-advancement and almost entirely got away with it in Germany prior to his seizing power, and for six and a half decades after WW II’s end, too. Weber’s book shows us that with history, as in the kitchen, there are always discoveries to be made. Weber also shows us the next book that needs writing about Hitler, his early postwar years explaining when and how he came to hold the political beliefs he did. Explaining Hitler’s rise to power is also going to go far in explaining the failure of Weimar democracy. That failure of a liberal society in an economically and educationally advanced Western country to withstand a militarized totalitarian movement in a time of economic crisis is one we’d be wise to pay some attention to these days.
Final book of merit I just read is Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, by Elizabeth Bard. This is a most charming book about Ms. Bard’s falling in love with a Frenchman and marrying him and moving to Paris. Ms. Bard, native New Yorker with an art history background, had been living in London after graduating from college in the States. At an academic conference there, she met her husband, a Breton science/arts polymath, and shortly afterwards moved over to Paris to merge her life with his. She recounts her first several years in Paris and her discoveries about France, the French, living in a foreign country, the differences between France and the United States, and how good ordinary food is in France. She gracefully tells an autobiographical story of prime years of young adulthood and adult life, during the big experience years of marriage and death of parents, all the while lived in a foreign country, with all the struggles to adjust that entailed. The book is greatly enlivened by her recipes of the dishes she ate, liked, and learned to make. I’d call these plain downhome modern French, almost modern day peasant cooking, and they all look pretty damned good and are good and straightforward to make, too.
One signal virtue of this book is its escaping from the usual chick lit/chick flick dead area of consciousness in its talking about work and the daily problems and struggles of working and making a living. Almost without exception modern women’s stories, be they Hollywood or Elizabeth Gilbert’s, don’t talk any about working life. Bridget Jones has a job, and goes to it every day, but nothing that happens there seems to be of any real import to her life–all the significant events occur in the post-work evenings and weekends, and that’s all that makes it to page or screen. I’ve never thought life was at all like this, and I’ve wondered for a long time now why chick stories all are like this. I am not sociologist enough to answer that, but I am pleased to say that Ms. Bard not only writes well about her working life, but also about her husband’s, and in doing so also gives us valuable insights into the differences between French and American societies, ones that would be lost otherwise.
But the book’s best, most important, and most useful virtue is its great honesty in telling of the struggles of adjusting to life in a foreign country. Ms. Bard had no support network in Paris when she moved there, an imperfect grasp of French, and no steady job or income. She had no expat community nor circle of friends–friends of any sort period–when she moved there and she tells well how hard it was to do, and all the strangeness and newness and differentness and frustrations of her new life. Reading her book, I suspect it was harder and more painful than she makes it out to be, but perhaps the love of her husband, who seems a thoroughly decent fellow, and her love for him, made it if not easier then less painful from all the small hurts and annoyances you face in daily life in an alien land. Or perhaps that love just made them easier to forget. A quotation from her about the differentness, strangeness, of life in a foreign country, here when her father in law starts to die from cancer:
“It dawned on me for the first time. In coming to Paris, in marrying Gwendal, I had signed up for more than flaky croissants and shiny mackerel. I had accepted a way of dealing with life and death. If I got sick tomorrow, there would be no fourth opinion from a specialist in Minneapolis with a promising new drug. I felt trapped in someone else’s system, like I’d bought a one-way ticket to a place I didn’t understand.”
Love brought Ms. Bard to live in a foreign country; happens to lots of people. This book is essential reading for anyone who like Ms. Bard gets whacked hard over the head by Cupid with a sockful in points abroad. But there is also moving to a foreign country for good from choice or more generally necessity. Americans have never done that in any significant numbers ever, except for right now, assuming that Joe Bageant had his facts right two years ago when he told me this, that young Americans are starting to do that, for the first time ever in this country’s history. Nobody is looking into this demographic/sociological seachange but if any young person who is thinking about jumping the American ship–and I certainly don’t blame them if they do–they’d be well advised to read this book as well, to have an understanding of how big their undertaking is.
**The White War, by Mark Thompson, was published last year and is the first decent history of Italy in the First World War. It is better than decent–it is very good and I highly recommend it. Anyone with an interest in modern Italy needs to read it. You simply can’t understand the 20th century history of any European country that participated in WWI until you understand their WWI history and experience. Which leads me to remember that Serbia was a major allied power in WWI, despite its small size, and it suffered more casualties and war damage proportionately than any other WWI participant, and somehow I suspect that that fact has a lot to do with recent events in the former Yugoslavia that we’ve embroiled ourselves into militarily a couple of times now, and hell if there is a single book on Serbia and the war in English.
Daniel White can be reached at email@example.com